Lessons and challenges from the pandemic in the age of climate breakdown

The pandemic is posing unprecedented challenges to our health and social systems, which have been torn apart by a decade of austerity cuts. On top of this, the threat of climate breakdown is predicted to cause much greater damage if no drastic and immediate measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The incapacity of governments to protect people’s lives over economic gains, in light of both Covid-19 and the climate, should prompt us to recognise the ultimate failure of neoliberal economies. Both crises however offer one last opportunity to fundamentally change the economy so that it works for the benefits of people and the planet.

The pandemic: a blessing for the earth?

Over the last months, the halt to human activity due to measures of self-isolation taken around the world have led to a drastic reduction in pollution levels in major cities and the return to wildlife in some spaces. In terms of CO2 emissions, records have shown the greatest fall measured since the end of the Second World War. While greenhouse gas levels significantly dropped during lockdowns these were however still below the recommendations outlined in the Paris agreement, which require a fall in CO2 levels of 7.6% each year in this decade to stay below the 1.5°C warming target.

Some people in the environment movement have yet praised the benefits of cleaner air and renewed wildlife as positive side-effects of the pandemic. However, few have gone even as far as considering the pandemic to be a blessing for the earth. A message posted on Extinction Rebellion East Midlands account, though later revealed to be a fake, described humans to be “the disease”. These views inspired by Neo-Malthusian ideology support the idea that population growth is blamed for the ills of the planet. This problematic narrative, not new among environmentalists, obscures from the real reason behind ecological breakdown: our capitalist economies. To view the pandemic as a natural and external phenomena is akin to treat climate change as something derived from its political nature. On the contrary, both crises have in common that there are the products of a politico-economic order which privileges profit over life.

Neoliberalism’s systemic failure to tackle global crises

There are indeed many parallels to be made between the global epidemic of Covid-19 and our planetary emergency. The most obvious one is that the virus affects us all but not to the same levels. For both Covid-19 and the climate crises show that we are actually far from “being all in this together” as some would have us believe. If the impacts of climate breakdown are disproportionally felt upon certain groups of people — working class, women, people of colour and particularly those living in the Global South- the same rules apply to the epidemic of coronavirus.

A significant policy failure in terms of both responses to the climate and covid crises is the governments’ lack of preventative action to deal with these issues. International climate treaties have long been based upon the precautionary principle, or the idea that when faced with a threat of considerable proportion, and great uncertainty, it is recommended to act prematurely. This is essential in order to avoid far much higher costs in the future in terms of both human lives and economic losses.

Instead of offering early and adequate support for people to self-isolate and protect themselves, people in Britain have been held responsible for the lives of others and the fate of the NHS to cover for the governments’ failures. Shifting the burden of responsibility upon individuals is especially common when dealing with environmental issues while governments are reluctant to take any policy measure to deal with the climate crisis upfront. Although government officials are talking about the pandemic as if it were an unpredictable event, the threat had been known long ago but no effective preparation was made given the short-term thinking that guides neoliberal policy-making. Inevitably, one is to expect a similar reaction from politicians when faced with the disastrous consequences of the climate crisis.

In the UK, the strong popular support for lockdown measures and people’s readiness to make significant changes in their lives for the common good should inspire future climate policy-making. However, ultimately it should not rely upon the majority of working-class people to show solidarity in times of a public health crisis after a decade of austerity cuts have decimated the welfare system and weakened the NHS. Instead, any economic recovery from the pandemic, such as via green public infrastructure spending programs, must largely be financed by higher taxes upon wealthy individuals and corporations.

Shaping a just recovery towards the green transition

If this global health crisis has so far led bare the social injustices at the heart of our neoliberal economies, it has also shed light upon the fundamentally unsustainable nature of our economic system, which faces a downturn as soon as the production wheel slows down. Indeed, the entire apparatus of our economies is rooted in the extraction, production and consumption of fossil fuels. Now that this frantic logic was put on temporary hold, people were forced to pause and re-consider what really matters in their lives. According to a YouGov poll, public support is increasingly in favour of a recovery prioritising wellbeing and health indicators over GDP growth. The idea of a degrowth strategy to downshift material consumption via wealth redistribution not only appears essential to limit the disastrous impacts of climate chaos, but it is also key to create flourishing and healthy societies where prosperity and wellbeing does not correlate with relentless economic growth.

However, if the present situation forces us to appreciate some seemingly more sustainable lifestyles and greater community solidarity, it is anything but what a desired post-growth world would look like. Indeed, the reality of capitalist economies is that when facing a recession, not only is there less money spent on polluting activities and material consumption but there is also significantly less investment directed towards the most needed green transition to steer us towards fair and low-carbon societies. In recent weeks, the fall of market prices have already hit hard the major fossil fuel companies and the aviation industry. As this crisis demonstrates, the most harmful corporate industries seem now likely to receive preferential treatment and be bailed out by the government given their important leverage power in the economy. However, this needs not to be the case and calls on the Left for a “just recovery” should also support the green “just transition” to shift polluting industries towards renewable sectors while supporting workers’ training and re-skilling programmes. Research from the New Economics Foundation for instance shows that airline bailouts can be tight to conditions to guarantee the democratic oversight of union bodies and support the retraining of workers towards green sectors. Environmentalists are also urging governments to make use of the currently negative oil prices to nationalise fossil fuel companies and ensure a just dismantling of the sector.

Transforming societies and shock-proofing the economy

Besides public health, our food system is another key sector proving to be of great concern in this crisis. While empty shelves in the supermarkets have shown the limits of a system that relies on just-in time distribution, it is the fragility of our overall food supply that is currently at stake. Indeed, the UK risks serious shortages of fresh fruit and veg in the coming months given an expected lack of 90'000 migrant workers from Eastern Europe. Failing to find appropriate trained workers among the British population, flights have been arranged to ship in fruit pickers from Romania to work in British farms exposing those workers to greater risks of contamination.

If the task for the Government to step-in and ensure the provision of a national food service is of necessity alongside the re-purposing of distribution systems, as Research from Autonomy details, we must equally transform the way food is produced in this country. Not only is this system failing to meet the basic standards of food security but its reliance upon an exploited workforce and large-scale fossil-based monoculture will prove untenable in the face of future climate-related shocks. To ensure that we can still produce food in an insecure climate while providing fair working conditions, we need to shift our agriculture system towards principles of food sovereignty and methods of agro-ecology. Given their labour intensive nature, it is also an opportunity to provide green jobs on a massive scale, which should be a central part of any governments’ Green New Deal investment program. Alongside care work, this is the kind of essential work that needs to be prioritised for a just and green recovery.

Overall this crisis has also clearly exposed the dangers and fragility of a hyper-globalised world, in the face of external stressors to the system, such as diseases or economic shocks. If the present situation does not signal the end of globalisation, it certainly calls for a relocalisation of our economies to more regional and sustainable production systems, what environmentalists have always advocated for through plans for regenerative, community supported agriculture schemes or green municipal energy initiatives.

While we are in a period of health crisis management, the impacts from the longer-term crisis of climate breakdown will imperatively need to be dealt with. The major political programs to support the economic and social recovery post-covid will have to imperatively follow those outlined in the plans for a Green New Deal in order to build resilient societies in the face of forthcoming climate-related disasters and global health hazards.

If anything, this global pandemic is also giving us a glimpse of the avaialable opportunities to transform the economy with governments being forced to implement public spending policies deemed impossible a few months ago. Few have already alluded to that there is no going back to what we knew as the world after the virus will look fundamentally different. Whether the next economic order will be akin to something close to democratic eco-socialism or eco-fascism mainly depends on our capacities on the Left to make bold demands and hold governments accountable for what a socially and environmentally just world should look like.